Japan: 28 Days Later (and some)

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals”…

The most annoying part about trying to hold any Fukushima-related conversation over the past couple weeks: being made to feel like a tireless cheerleader for TEPCO, the Japanese government or nuclear energy in general. Merely refusing the whole panicky, guts-over-science, interpretation of events automatically left me in that corner over there, with the energy company shills, neo-con climate change deniers and simple-minded fools doomed to die a fiery nuclear death.

This is particularly enraging, if somewhat ironic, considering how much I loathe practically every aspects of public policy-making in Japan. In usual times, I am the culturally-insensitive boorish gaijin who snidely comments on the levels of inertia, corruption and inefficiency ingrained in Japan’s particular brand of bureaucratic para-democracy, getting much awkward silence and polite placating from annoyed Japanese counterparts (yes, I am the life of parties).

So, let me spell it out for the dialectically-challenged out there: Fuck TEPCO. Fuck its useless bunch of amakudari, working hand-in-hand with their equally self-serving ministry bureaucrat friends to keep their cushy retirement gigs at the expense of pretty much everything else. They are a perfect (though far from unique) embodiment of everything that is wrong with Japanese politics and bureaucracy. And most of it has absolutely nothing to do with the uncontrollable consequences of one of the strongest natural disaster to ever hit a modern country. If you want to blame TEPCO for something, why don’t you start by going back to 1995 and have a look at their practice of hiring Japanese lower-class burakumin to work in sub-standard conditions

While I am at it: let me also publicly state my fervent dislike of nuclear radiations, tsunamis, cancer, war, famine and innocent children’s tears.

That being said…

How about first revisiting those heady days of post-tsunami events and the journalistic gold-rush for fear-mongering, grossly-inaccurate, paper-selling nuggets of gold. Remember? When “Western media had a better grasp of the situation than you people on the ground”1. The somewhat condescending idea that foreign media gave an inherently better coverage of the news, by virtue of their independence and superior journalistic skills…
Here is the deal about foreign media and what they publish(ed) about Fukushima: their facts all come from one place. The very same place Japanese media get their facts from, the same place everybody gets their facts from: official TEPCO press releases and Japanese government spokesmen. CNN does not have some embedded journalist traipsing around reactor #3 with a geiger counter or a mole inside the DPJ headquarters: they do like everybody else and work from [poorly translated, second-hand-acquired] official news releases. So much for the “poorly informed” local media, kept in the dark while their foreign homologues expose the naked shocking truth to the world. Their only differences resided in their tone and the quality of their analysis. And on both counts, the less said, the better.

The worldwide public hysteria and trail of half-truths that lingers to this day, would be easier to forgive if there were not dozens of alternatives, offering thoroughly vetted analysis based on facts and science rather than shock journalism fancy: MIT nuclear engineering specialists, experts at the IAEA, you name it…

What about their obvious pro-nuclear bias, you say?

Well, disregarding the fact that most of the aforementioned nuclear specialists have no more of a “pro-nuclear” bias than your average oncologist has a pro-cancer bias, here is the truly great thing about Science™: it is based on evidence. When postulating a scientific interpretation that cannot be trivially verified, scientists are expected to cite a reliable source providing said proof (in fact, a long, long time ago, this is also how journalism was expected to work. Don’t laugh). I don’t doubt for one second that there are corrupt or unethical scientists out there ready to overlook inconvenient results or massage numbers, but the laws of physics do not care about lobby funding or newspaper sales.

The funny thing about Science is that it is sometime counter-intuitive and very often vexatiously indifferent to one’s wishes or expectations.

Remember when Chernobyl’s radioactive particle cloud spread all over Europe, triggering a surge of radiation-related thyroid cancers from the following decade to our days?

If you don’t, chances are people will be more than happy to remind you, any time you ever dare questioning the automatically implied cataclysmic health consequences of the current Fukushima crisis. Only one problem with that (beside the fact that these two nuclear failure events have practically nothing in common, in nature or in scale): to this day, not one of the thousands epidemiological studies on the consequences of Chernobyl has been able to link the spread of the radioactive cloud to significant increases in leukemia or thyroid cancer in any Western or Central European country2. The only discernible health effects of radiations were observed among the crew that were purposely sent to the actual site for cleanup without any protection (the famous “liquidators”) and children who grew up drinking delicious milk from the lovely surrounding pastures. Both say a lot more about the criminally negligent behaviour of Soviets authority, who could have prevented most of these effects by providing proper equipment to cleanup crew, immediately evacuating the surrounding area and distributing iodide to affected population, than the potential risk of a correctly-handled nuclear accident.
This does not make Chernobyl any less of a human and environmental disaster or mean that a cold radionuclide shower is the best thing to start the day, it just makes it a lot harder for me to take anything you say seriously, when you back your Fukushima-will-kill-us-all rant by citing “well-known facts” such as these.

And for conspiracylovers currently shaking their head at my naiveté for buying the lies fed to me by the State-run propaganda machine: do you know how much a geiger counter costs? I’ll tell you: not much at all. In fact, your nerdy 12-year-old nephew probably built one last Summer from a $20 kit. With thousands of people waving their counter all over the country, do you not think that, if for some reason the Man decided to hide true radiation levels in some hope that it would all go away by itself, somebody would come out and bring proof of the contrary?3

All this does not matter much any more: turns out Nuclear Apocalypse 2011 did not happen, neither did Godzilla emerge from the radioactive waters of Tokyo bay; radiation levels — that never reached significant levels anywhere outside of Fukushima in the first place — are now back to everyday polluted-21st-century norms, the reactors are slowly but surely cooling down and scared people the world over have moved onto worrying about the next oil war or the progeny of Europe’s most lucky haemophiliac lineage. In the end, things went somewhere between mid-scale and worst-case scenario and — surprise — resulted in just what had been predicted for such a possibility: nobody died, nobody likely will, few were even seriously injured. Meanwhile, up north, over 15,000 people died and about half-a-million are still living in precarious conditions for entirely non-Fukushima related tsunami reasons. But don’t let that affect your distorted sense of perspective.

* *

As for the more general nuclear debate (in Japan and abroad), there is room for a separate post at some later date (I am running out on my monthly foam-at-the-mouth rant quota), but here is the short version:

I don’t like Nuclear. Nobody likes Nuclear. Given the choice, nobody would pick scary, hard-to-control, potentially lethal, nukular witchcraft, over some ideal eco-friendly solution like, say, unicorn fart-based energy. A few would perhaps even prefer the whole running naked through pristine green hills and learning to use less energy thing, and they have a valid point.

Unfortunately, down here in the real world, less nuclear energy does not mean less power consumption. And it certainly does not mean more eco-friendly energy sources. Quite the opposite.
Oh, I am sure when you went and protested against nuclear plants, you had some very strong opinion about replacing them with renewable energy sources. It’s just that, in this cold cynical world we live in, it is a lot easier for any government to: 1) yield on nuclear, 2) mumble some vague, hastily-forgotten promise about doing something with wind turbines or whatever and 3) go and build a shitload of cheap gas- or coal-burning power plants.

You know what’s most hilarious about that? Aside from their widely recognised detrimental effect on climate change and the environment, coal-based power plants release more radioactive particles than your average nuclear plant. Forget radioactivity: on a normal year, with no earthquake or tsunami, coal pollution kills over 100,000 people worldwide. But I guess it’s OK, because “coal” is just this nice friendly material we barbecue with, whereas uranium is a lot scarier and sci-fi-sounding.

Remember when all countries decided to stop using hydroelectric power plants in the 70s, following that dam accident in China that killed a little under a quarter-million people? Or when we outlawed all gas-based vehicles, due to the inordinate ecological and human cost of oil exploitation? Yes, me neither.
By comparison, you could make the point that Fukushima’s ultimately limited toll in the wake of a once-in-a-century disaster is the strongest pro-nuclear argument there ever was.

If we were to reason logically, in terms of environmental and human impact (both actual and projected) and taking in account reality-based constraints on energy production (no matter what amount of unlikely political pressure you put on the system, you will not replace even a fraction of nuclear energy by all-renewable, safe, eco-friendly energy sources for at least a decade or two), nuclear would clearly come out as the lesser of all evil, for the time being. Up to you and me to ensure better alternatives are then pushed to allow a safe transition out4.

There is a lot more to say about other aspects of the problem, not all in favour of nuclear (this guy competently covered a lot of them). My feelings on the issue are a lot more nuanced than the above might make it sound, and there are a lot of reasoned arguments against nuclear energy that I can relate to, or partially agree with.

Bottom line: I will full-heartedly support your effort to close the local nuclear plant, the day you can guarantee me that its entire energetic output will be matched by newly-built clean sources of energy and that you will not rest a minute until it happens…

  1. True quote from some well-meaning moron to whom I was trying to impress that Japan was not the devastated radioactive wasteland he envisioned. []
  2. A few early studies did suggest weak correlation. Then the clinicians thought of asking the statistician in their lab what “screening bias” meant. []
  3. What do you say? “It’s because they were silenced before they could”? Oh, I give up. []
  4. Fun fact #3214: among the more serious, reality-based, contenders for clean, safe energy source of the future, research on that elusive Nuclear Fusion energy has been considerably hampered by anti-nuclear campaigning. []

1 comment

  1. It disgust me how the media has become. Progressively more and more sensationalist, and lacking in character. The media could be focused on actually helping survivors of tragedies; but instead, exploit for profit. I will forever miss Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, and others of their generation – they were the last to show any true propriety.

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